Winter 2008, Vol. 10, No. 3

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From the Editor:
Apologia pro bloga sua

Men in Green

Turning Over the Bowl in Burma

When Germans Convert

Show Me the Money 


The Faith Factor
by John Green

God's Own Party:

Oral Surgery
by Matthew Avery Sutton


On October 9, Richard Roberts told CNN’s Larry King that a lawsuit leveled against him was “the most unusual thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life.” As the son of the pioneering Pentecostal faith healer and televangelist Oral Roberts, this is a man who has witnessed some unusual things.

The mirror image of his father, Richard Roberts stood beside him in 1977 as Oral told reporters that he had seen a 900-foot-tall Jesus. Richard also claims to have seen the resurrection of a child from the dead in response to his father’s prayers, and he supported his dad when Oral told the world in 1987 that God was going to kill him if he did not raise $8 million for a new medical complex.

Indeed, Richard Roberts has been near religious controversy throughout his life. This time, however, it is he—not Oral—who has been at the center of the storm.

In recent years, Richard has helped his father run Oral Roberts University (ORU), which Roberts père opened in 1965 for the purpose of educating a new generation of Pentecostal and charismatic leaders. It has become one of the premier Pentecostal liberal arts colleges in the nation, with a current enrollment of over 5,700 students.

Oral is the school’s chancellor, while Richard served until recently as president, running the day-to-day operations. The school is facing serious financial difficulties, and the new lawsuit has put all that the Robertses have built in jeopardy.

On October 2, three former ORU professors sued Richard Roberts, other university officials, and the school itself, claiming that they were wrongfully forced out of their positions. The plaintiffs were John Swails, former chair of the department of history, humanities, and government, who had taught at ORU for 14 years; Tim Brooker, who had taught government at ORU for six years; and Brooker’s wife Paulita, an adjunct at ORU for three years.

According to them, the university violated federal law by engaging in partisan politics. Things have changed a lot since the early 20th century, when Pentecostals largely eschewed secular political activity. Today they are major players on the Religious Right, and for many, the Republican Party is their home.

Seeking to capitalize on this relationship, the Republican National Committee (RNC) created a program that provided ORU students with course credit for working on political campaigns. To keep the school from violating Internal Revenue rules prohibiting non-profit organizations from engaging in partisan political activity, the RNC picked up all expenses. Initially, the students worked only on out-of-state races because university leaders did not want to alienate the school’s neighbors.

According to Tim Brooker, who was in charge of the program, Richard Roberts decided in the winter of 2005 that it was time to break with that policy. He wanted Brooker’s students to help Randi Miller become the Republican candidate for mayor of Tulsa in 2006. Not only did Miller fail to win the GOP primary, but her race attracted the attention of the IRS, which launched an investigation to determine if ORU had broken the law. Brooker claims that Roberts forced him to assume responsibility for the debacle, even though he had opposed it from the beginning.

To make matters worse, students working on the ill-fated campaign had access to a computer normally used by Richard Roberts’ sister-in-law, Stephanie Cantees, who worked for the Roberts ministry as community and government liaison. On it they stumbled upon a report compiled by Cantees that detailed potential areas of Roberts family vulnerability. Hoping to protect Richard’s political clout, Cantees had been recording negative stories and rumors related to the family. “I asked her some years ago if she would be eyes and ears to me and tell me what was going on,” Richard told Larry King. “From time to time, she would make notes from things that she heard and she would always write them down. And then she would bring them to me.”

The students showed the Cantees report to Brooker, who along with John Swails turned it over to university administrators. Rather than deal with the allegations contained in the document, the administrators allegedly forced the professors out, hoping to cover up the report. For her part, Paulita Brooker says that she was fired for reporting an incident of sexual harassment on the part of another professor.

The report disclosed that the Roberts family used university funds for vacations and personal luxuries. Richard Roberts, who was receiving a $228,000 salary from the university (the family’s total income for all ministry work was $673,000 annually), purportedly booked speaking engagements in beautiful locations so that he could bring his wife and children along, turning legitimate university travel into family vacations at the school’s expense.

Roberts said that he always reimbursed the school for these trips. Yet a former senior accountant at the university disagreed, claiming that he was instructed to cook the books to hide the Roberts’ personal expenses. (He has filed his own wrongful termination lawsuit.)

The original lawsuit also alleges that extensive and repeated remodeling was done on the Roberts’ university-owned home; that the university paid for a stable and horses for their children; and that Roberts’ daughters had free rein on the campus. Apparently, they were not disciplined for crashing university golf carts or for vandalizing athletic equipment.

As frustrating as these claims might be to university students and alumni, the alleged fraud was not in the same league as that of Jim Bakker 20 years ago. For today’s televangelists, the amount of spending by the Roberts family, said by the lawsuit to run into the tens of thousands of dollars, constitutes little more than chump change. But because it came from tuition payments, not “love offerings,” students and the local community were outraged.

Nor did it help that the Robertses had close ties to prosperity gospel ministers—the true vultures in the religion business. The prosperity gospel teaches that Jesus was rich and that God wants all of his people to be materially prosperous. It promises followers that they can attain wealth through demonstrations of faith, usually by donating beyond their means to prosperity gospel ministers.

On November 5, in the midst of the breaking ORU scandal, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, opened an investigation into the misuse of funds by six of these prosperity-preaching televangelists. Three of his targets—Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and the aptly named Creflo Dollar—served on the ORU board of regents. Dollar has since resigned, and Hinn has become a “regent emeritus” without voting privileges. 

Richard Roberts initially responded to the lawsuit with denials, assuming the now common persona of the persecuted televangelist doing Jesus’ work while dogged by the devil and his minions. According to the Tulsa World, he called a campus-wide meeting to pray “against all enemies”; accused the three professors who had filed the lawsuit of blackmail and extortion; and invoked the words of Jesus by saying that he would “pray for those who persecute and despitefully use us.” Then he and his wife Lindsay went on Larry King Live to defend themselves.

Their actions provoked additional revelations. The initial lawsuit contained an obscure line that referred to thousands of text messages sent by Lindsay Roberts to “underage” males in the middle of the night over a period of a few months. While the plaintiffs originally omitted this information from their filing, after the Robertses went on the offensive, they filed an amended complaint that included the entire document retrieved from the Cantees computer.

According to the document, 51-year-old Lindsay had a 16-year-old boyfriend who on multiple occasions had spent the night with her at the university guest house. Eventually, the boyfriend even moved into the Roberts’ family home.

Lindsay denied these assertions and the alleged boyfriend said he was actually dating the Roberts’ youngest daughter. He claimed that there was nothing sexual about his relationship with Lindsay and that the late-night car rides and text messages were the result of Lindsay’s willingness to minister to and mentor a troubled teen. But on October 17, in the face of the salacious revelations, Roberts took a leave of absence from the university (but not from his position atop the Oral Roberts Ministries empire).

Notwithstanding Roberts’ claims to the contrary, members of the OSU Board of Regents were not confident that the lawsuit was frivolous. Shortly after learning of it (before it went public), they hired an independent auditor to open the books. Almost immediately, it became clear that they were more interested in preserving the school than in saving Richard’s reputation.

Surprisingly, Roberts received almost no public pledges of support. Regents chairman George Pearsons, himself the son-in-law of prosperity preacher and televangelist Kenneth Copeland, told the Tulsa World on October 18 that he hoped that the Robertses would be cleared, but that “if it’s the other way around, we’ll have to make decisions accordingly.” On November 12, a month after the story broke, the ORU faculty voted “no confidence” in Roberts.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, professors did not want him back and on November 18 more than 80 percent of them expressed opposition to his return. On November 24, after the provost vowed to resign if the board reinstated him, Roberts tendered his resignation.

The scandal convulsed the media in Tulsa, where the World’s April Marciszewski and the AP’s Justin Juozapavicius were the reporters on the beat. Nationally, the story was covered by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times as well as by Larry King, who has made something of a specialty of covering  evangelical celebrities.

The World took a carefully balanced approach to the story, covering its twists and turns closely while posting the major documents on its website. The paper views ORU’s overall roll in the local community in a positive light—scarcely surprising given the jobs and students it provides to the local economy.

Unfortunately, however, reporters were unable to get behind this story. Most of the coverage did little more than summarize public documents and carefully crafted press releases issued by the major participants. There were no significant scoops and little revealed  by insiders, on or off the record, about the major charges and counter claims. As of mid-December, there were still many unresolved questions, including the extent of the Roberts’ spending, the nature of Lindsay’s relationship with the teenager, and the role that Oral is playing behind the scenes.

Whatever emerges, the lawsuit has exposed problems inherent in many Pentecostal ministries. In the latter part of the 20th century, Americans witnessed the decline of traditional denominations and the rise of populist celebrity ministers who almost singlehandedly built themselves religious empires. Many of these entrepreneurs were skeptical of the nation’s colleges and universities, viewing them as secular institutions hostile to Christian values.

As a result, they established their own. Some of these, including Pat Robertson’s Regent University, the Assemblies of God’s Vanguard University, and ORU itself have become respected, fully accredited, Christian-oriented, liberal arts institutions.

These schools, however, are facing generational conflicts. Younger faculty members, who have often trained in the country’s top universities, quickly grow frustrated with the hierarchical polity established by their predecessors.

Dictatorial tactics cannot sustain the ministries that they built, especially as the charismatic founders retire or pass away. After years of authoritarian domination under Richard, ORU professors are fighting back. They seem much less interested in preserving the “Oral Roberts” than the “University” in the school’s title. Students also seem to be unsure about what to make of the accusations. Some have begun organizing their own lawsuits against the university, claiming that they were defrauded of tuition dollars and that their degrees have lost value.

When the story broke, one recent alumnus expressed little surprise, telling the World’s Marciszewski that in “the whole charismatic movement…stuff like this seems to always happen.” Why is it that of all religious groups, Pentecostal and charismatic ministers (including Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard) seem to be particularly scandal-prone?

Because of the movement’s ecstatic practices, including faith healing and speaking in tongues, there has long been a seeming aura of heightened sexuality in Pentecostalism. John Steinbeck, for example, opened his 1939 classic the Grapes of Wrath with a Pentecostal evangelist who explained, “I use ta get the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out….An’ then you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out in the grass, an’ I’d lay with her.”

But the explanation may have less to do with some intrinsic inclination toward sexual sin and financial impropriety than the Pentecostal movement’s tendency to create celebrity ministers who thrive in the spotlight. No American religious group can compete with Pentecostals when it comes to mastering mass media. They dominate the airwaves.

All religious movements have occasional errant leaders, but because so many of those who are in the limelight are Pentecostal, their foibles receive a disproportionate amount of attention. At the same time, Pentecostals have been terrible at creating systems of financial accountability for their ministries. Their independent, populist streak and their history of working outside of traditional denominational structures often make them unwilling to submit to independent oversight. When you combine the theological conviction that God wants you to be rich with weak bureaucracies, trouble is inevitable.

As Richard Roberts’ future at the university started to look dim, his father left sunny California for Tulsa, vowing that the “devil” would not “steal ORU.” But when he called a faculty meeting and asked professors to forgive and start fresh, the plea had little effect. A phone call into Larry King Live during Richard’s interview may have been his last hurrah—the old king of televangelism no longer seemed relevant.

Richard, in turn, continued to frame the controversy as a spiritual battle. The AP’s Juozapavicius reported his claim to have received a “prophecy” six months earlier indicating that problems were on the horizon. God assured him that he would come through them stronger than ever. Then, when he resigned, he claimed that God told him to.

Roberts’ resignation was followed by the announcement that Hobby Lobby founder Mart Green was giving the school $70 million to help get it back on track. The next week, the Board of Regents met and began the process of fully separating the school from the Oral Roberts ministry. It was decided that Oral and Richard would remain on the board as “spiritual regents” without voting power or any role in operations.

On December 11, a district court judge ordered the plaintiffs and ORU to begin mediation to resolve their differences. With an infusion of cash and some new leadership, Oral Roberts University will probably be just fine. The Roberts family, however, is most likely out of the education business for good.

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